The Masterrsingers of Nuremberg

© Hannu Salmi

[This text is also available in German]

The Mastersingers is the most openly and clearly political of all Wagner's operas. It was performed for the first time in Munich on 21st June 1868. Unlike Tristan and Isolde, which had been premiered two years earlier (though completed in the 1850s), and which was a characteristically introvert work in a Schopenhauerian fashion, The Mastersingers was pure national agitation.

It is possible to examine The Mastersingers as a musical parallel to Deutsche Kunst und deutsche Politik. Both deal with excitement with the links between arts and politics. Wagner finished the score of The Mastersingers in 1867, at the same time as the cycle of articles for the Süddeutsche Presse. The opera was premiered in the summer of the following year, when Deutsche Kunst and deutsche Politik appeared in book form.

Long and thorough-going preparations with over-lapping projects were characteristic of Wagner's creative work. Thus, the first phases in the making of The Mastersingers go back to July 1845, when the earliest fragments of the libretto were set down. The essential opera was, however, created in the 1860s. The framework for the libretto was constructed in Vienna and Paris between February 1861 and January 1862. Wagner then composed the libretto periodically between April 1862 and September 1864. In Munich, Wagner concentrated on his central project, the accomplishment of the Ring of the Nibelung tetralogy. The Mastersingers was then shelved for some time. Probably the reason for this was that Wagner was concentrating on his attempts to influence the young King and did not consider it relevant to continue the openly nationalistic project of The Mastersingers.

Wagner did not work again on The Mastersingers until 1866-1867, in a situation where the German question was to convey an entirely new kind of political significance than previously. Wagner rewrote the libretto at Triebschen, between December 1866 and January 1867. The composition was completed by 24th October 1867. The years 1866-67 constituted the most significant phase in the project: Wagner had already composed the overture early in 1862, but he did not finish the first act until March 1866. The two following acts were then quickly completed.

The Mastersingers is an exceptional work in Wagner's oeuvre, since it is in the genre of comic opera. It is set in sixteenth-century Nuremberg, where a song contest and a feast have been arranged. At the beginning of the opera Eva, the daughter of Veit Pogner, the goldsmith, falls in love with a young knight, Walther von Stolzing, who is paying a brief visit to the town. Pogner has, however, decided that his daughter Eva will be the prize in the midsummer song contest. Hans Sachs, the shoemaker, proposes that the audience should choose the winner, but the proposal is rejected, and the verdict is placed in the hands of the critics. One of the critics is Sixtus Beckmesser, who is also smitten by Eva. During the night, Walther has a beautiful dream, and composes a poem as a basis for his master song, but he has already been eliminated in the singing trials, and has lost the possibility of taking part in the contest. Hans Sachs presents Beckmesser with Walther's poem, and thus offers Beckmesser the key to win the competition. In the contest, however, Beckmesser, of course, fails to win, as the song is not his own: the style is false. Sachs then proposes that Walther should be allowed to perform his song, despite his failure in the trial round. Walther sings a beautiful aria ("Morgenlicht leuchtend in rosigem Schein"), and wins the contest. He refuses to accept the title of Mastersinger, but will accept instead Eva. The opera ends with a finale in which Hans Sachs sings in praise of the German masters:

Habt acht! Uns drohen üble Streich': -
zerfällt erst deutsches Volk und Reich,
in falscher wälscher Majestät
kein Fürst bald mehr sein Volk versteht;
und wälschen Dunst mit wälschem Tand
sie pflanzen uns in deutsches Land.
Was deutsch und echt wüßt' keiner mehr,
lebt's nicht in deutscher Meister Ehr'.
Drum sag' ich euch:
ehrt eure deutschen Meister,
dann bannt ihr gute Geister!
Und gebt ihr ihrem Wirken Gunst,
zerging in Dunst
das heil'ge röm'sche Reich,
uns bliebe gleich
die heil'ge deutsche Kunst!

The topic of The Mastersingers sprang from German musical history, for Nuremberg had really been a centre of mastersinging. The Mastersingers tradition is closely connected with the Minnelied, and dates back to the period between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Mastersingers were generally skilled poets and singers. The best-known masters were Michael Behaim, Hans Rosenblüth, Hans Folz, and - one of Wagner's characters - Hans Sachs. Clearly, Wagner wanted to associate himself through this opera with the tradition of the German masters. In the same way as the Mastersingers of the sixteenth century had to fight against foreign cultural influences, Wagner also had to fight for German art. Wagner apparently identified himself with the character of Hans Sachs. This is shown by Wagner's habit of signing his letters "Hans Sachs", especially when they dealt with matters concerning The Mastersingers. When the score of the opera was completed, he telegraphed Hans von Bülow: "This evening at 8 o'clock precisely the final C will be written down. Please celebrate with us in silence. Sachs."

In the opera, Hans Sachs proposes that instead of the critics the audience should be allowed to choose the best Mastersinger. This is in tune with Wagner's opinion of critics as irrelevant; what was relevant was how art would serve the community. Beckmesser was a caricature of a one-sided narrow-minded critic, who imitated the old traditional style, but proved himself to be ridiculously helpless. The model for Beckmesser was Eduard Hanslick, the critic of the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse. In fact, the name of the character was Hanslich in the draft libretto of 1861, and only later did Wagner change the name to Beckmesser. Dieter Borchmeyer suggests that the character also resembles the comic figure of the "dottore" in the traditional commedia dell'arte. When Wagner wrote the first sketches for The Mastersingers in 1858, Hanslick had had a positive attitude, among other things, towards the Tannhäuser overture; but later Hanslick became a vociferous anti-Wagnerian. Even though the character of Beckmesser in the final opera is in the traditional style of comedy, it clearly symbolizes an attack on the institution of the critics.

The most significant feature in The Mastersingers was its ardent patriotism, which was likely to appeal to a German audience. Carl Dahlhaus has stressed that 1868 was a turning-point for Wagner on the road to fame; The Mastersingers proved to be a great success, and achieved national popularity. It was a corner stone from which Wagner was to spread his entire production to the public. As is stated in the 1878 edition of The Meyer Encyclopedia: "The latter work (Mastersingers) was soon performed in all major German theatres, and Wagner gained more popularity than ever."

The Mastersingers spread throughout Germany after its Munich premiere, and was performed at many opera houses on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War. The words "falsche wälsche Majestät" sung by Hans Sachs seemed to refer to the decadent influence of French civilization, against which the Germans needed to be ready to fight. France was often referred to using the words "der wälsche Erbfeind". Thus Wagner's opera was of immediate contemporary significance.

The journal Signale für die musikalische Welt stated in its 1869 annual review "Das musikalische Jahr 1869":

Richard Wagner is quite simply the sole living German composer whose works for the stage, despite all the aesthetic protests and personal attacks, despite all the pamphlets and articles in the press, are steadily gaining ground and demonstrating their capacity to hold it - since their creator is a genius whose qualifications cannot be denied, and whose eminent artistic power and consistency have to be acknowledged, whether with criticism or with sympathy.

The journal records one of the most significant events of the German opera world in 1869 as the unprecedented triumph of The Mastersingers. The Munich premiere resulted in a series of numerous performances soon after the turn of the year: the opera was performed in Dresden on 21st January, in Dessau on 29th January, in Karlsruhe on 5th February, in Mannheim on 5th March, and in Weimar on 28th November. Everywhere, the reception was enthusiastic and even enraptured. In the Signale review of the Karlsruhe performance, Wagner was lauded as an indisputable genius, and the work itself was classified as a German national opera which expressed the sovereignty of the German spirit.

The triumph of The Mastersingers reached even greater heights in 1870. During February, it was performed both in Vienna and in Hanover; in March in Königsberg, in April in Berlin, and in December in Leipzig. In addition, The Mastersingers continued to be part of the Dresden, Karlsruhe, Munich, and Weimar repertoires. Wagner's other operas now also spread on the waves created by The Mastersingers throughout Germany: Tannhäuser, The Flying Dutchman, and even Rienzi were performed in numerous German opera houses.

A milestone, from Wagner's point of view, was, of course, the Berlin performance. The capital of Prussia was regarded as conservative and tradition-bound: a newcomer was always treated with exceptional criticism. Only a few months before the nation's rise to arms, The Mastersingers seemed to offer a feeling of nationalism which was acknowledged even in Berlin. It is no wonder the work was received with "great excitement" and "with glamorous success".

From Hannu Salmi's book Imagined Germany. Richard Wagner's National Utopia. German Life and Civilization, Vol. 29. General editor: Jost Hermand. Peter Lang Publishing: New York 1999, pp. 134-138.

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